Cultural Web Model: A Strategy for Corporate Culture

cultural web model visual

What is the cultural web model? Well, a company's strategic direction, and success, is very often a byproduct of its corporate culture. So, it benefits organisations not only to think about culture but to analyse it.

The cultural web model is just one way to understand company culture in the scope of organisational development. In this article, we will introduce it, break it down into its essential elements, and show you how you can use it to help envision and interrogate your own culture today.

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What is the Cultural Web Model?

The cultural web model is a framework that defines the paradigm — the lived experience of employees — of an organisation. It examines the interconnected elements that shape the culture of an organisation, including symbols, rituals, power structures and more.

Developed in 1992 by Gerry Johnson and Kevan Scholes, the cultural web model is a method of exploring the different elements of a company. And, how these elements can shape people’s experiences working for them (or for customers buying from them).

In addition to that, the cultural web mode offers ways to explore:

  • What power structures exist within a company

  • The collective ‘history’ of a company

  • How behaviours or ‘rituals’ are formed

When it comes down to it, the model itself is a way to understand a company’s present culture and the elements that can help define it moving forward.

The Six Key Elements of the Cultural Web Model

The cultural web is centred around a paradigm, otherwise known as the lived reality of the company. We can understand that as what it is like to come into work, every day, from an employee’s perspective.

There are six crucial elements that help illustrate and colour that reality. These include…

1. Stories

Think of this as the collective ‘memory’ of an organisation. For this element, it is helpful to think about the ‘stories that organisations tell.’ The narrative or the words that are used to describe the company, its history, and its future.

This could include how the company was founded, how it got this far, the key players and their actions, and how employees describe working at that organisation. Anything that could be put into words can live here.

The thinking here is that these stories often illuminate a company’s core values, and what behaviours they determine worthy of exemplifying. Stories encourage employees to follow certain paths to become part of company history.

2. Ritual and Routines

These are the various behaviours and actions that are acceptable in a company. Routines can also be understood as expectations, which could include what an employee can expect coming into work every day, leaving work, or what activities throughout the day look like.

In various recurring scenarios, employees learn how they are expected to behave and what constitutes ‘normal’ behaviour. Whether or not that behaviour is productive is up for debate, but it is what has become normalised as part of that type of company culture.

3. Symbols

Symbols play their role in the cultural web model as part of employer branding, or organisational branding, more generally.

Think of it as anything visual: logos, branding, the way the office looks, dress codes at work, advertisements, and more. Both internal and external, it is the visual communication of a company that influences this element.

So, ask yourself: When you think of your organisation in your mind’s eye, what comes to mind? What images do you imagine? How does your company ‘look’ to you?

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4. Organisation Structures

There are two key elements at play in this element of the cultural web, so let’s define them right out of the gate. We have:

  • Written influence

  • Unwritten influence

The first is as simple as an organisational chart. Whether flat or hierarchical, this is the very clear organisational structure of who works where, who reports to who, and ultimately has final decision-making power.

Beyond that, things get a bit more unclear. That’s because Johnson and Scholes were also careful to define the idea of ‘unwritten influence’ in an organisation. This can include people who have incredible amounts of influence that are not reflected in an organisational chart.

Ultimately, this determines whose contributions carry the most value, who can be looked to for decision-making power, while acknowledging some of the political elements that may be in play.

For that reason, mapping out both written and unwritten influences in your organisation can be an especially productive exercise. It can also reveal where some employees may feel blocked, trapped, or unclear about who runs or owns what.

5. Control Systems

The next element is based on how control is exerted in an organisation. We may also think about this in terms of performance management, and how employees are graded on how they work and how they succeed in their various roles.

Think about things like financial systems, quality control, fringe benefits, and bonuses. These are the ways in which good performance is encouraged, and the way poor performance is handled, corrected, and dealt with (whether effectively or ineffectively).

6. Power Structures

Last, but not least, we have power structures completing the cultural web model.

This is what some call ‘real power’ within an organisation. It is essentially the centre of power, and it can take many different forms. It could be one person, a handful of executives, an entire group, or a department that has influence over the entire company.

When thinking about it, the key here is knowing which people have the greatest say, how an organisation runs, and how their opinions dictate strategic direction.

How Do You Use The Cultural Web Model?

The cultural web model is best used when it looks at an organisation’s present culture. That means running through each of the important elements and aligning it with how the company currently operates.

Then, you need to think about the culture that you want your organisation to have. While this may encompass some things you’ve already mentioned, the idea is to skew a bit more aspirational when it comes to your corporate culture.

Now, you have to determine the differences between the two. Where are you succeeding? Where are you lacking? And how can you make up the difference between the two?

The cultural web is designed as an illuminating exercise, but it isn’t the end of the journey. Now, you need to act on it and put some form of a plan into place.

Developing Strategy from the Cultural Web

After you have developed a better idea of where you stand, where you want to go, and the space in between each, you can develop a way to get there.

This could include working on your corporate values or figuring out the best ways to prioritise and promote behaviours you want to see in your organisation moving forward.

Taken together, the cultural web can help provide a holistic vision and roadmap, based on key areas, to bring about real change in your corporate culture.

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